Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Sour Pickle Experiment

When I was a kid, I asked Santa for a ChemLab one Christmas - back then, a toy laboratory in a tri-fold tin box. The best part, for me, was the microscope. But playing with chemical mixing and reactions was fun too. I still like experimenting with chemical reactions. Only nowadays, I have a whole kitchen for my laboratory (plus now, my results are edible - well, most of the time, anyway).

The end of August this year, I had a glut of cucumbers. For some reason, they did really well (especially the hybrid Sugar Crunch - earliest, prolific, and yummy; next best were from my saved Lemon Cucumber seeds - though later to start setting fruit, they're amazingly prolific, and the last ones picked will keep a few more weeks in a bowl on the counter, on into the fall; not so good - an open-pollinated one, Long Green). I feast on fresh cukes when I've got them, and quite often have planted enough to put up as well. Only thing is - Aries doesn't like pickles, so I'm the only one eating them. I already have enough sweet relish, dill chips, sweet pickles, and bread & butter pickles. I started researching other options.

My dill chips, from my Aunt Lillian's recipe, are tasty, but not crunchy enough. Pickles can add such a nice crunch to a sandwich. Hmmm - maybe pickling them whole would be better. These were pretty good-sized cukes though - two, maybe three, to a quart jar. Then, I started looking into fermenting instead of pickling. Ooo, something new to experiment with. I like sauerkraut; I've got a nice glass crock (extra cool for playing scientist, for observing those chemical changes).

I thought it especially interesting reading about the need to cut the merest little slice off the blossom end of the cucumbers. The blossom end produces an enzyme that hastens ripening of the fruit, and if left intact can contribute to softness in pickles. News to me - I'll definitely have to experiment more with that when I next make any other kind of pickles. Ideally, leaving a bit of the stem attached to the other end also makes for a better pickle.

Especially in the older recipes, layering grape leaves in with the cucumbers was said to contribute to crunchiness in the end product. I just happen to have a couple of organically-grown grapevines, so I picked and washed a bunch of palm-sized leaves. Everything ready, I made a layer of grape leaves, shiny-side up, on the bottom of the crock, then stacked in the whole cucumbers with fresh dill, garlic, and a couple of dried hot peppers. I topped the stack with more grape leaves and a ceramic plate, poured in the lightly salted (with only a little bit of vinegar) brine, and then left it to start fermenting (the recipe I used here).

After a couple of weeks, it was smelling pretty good. The fresh cukes were still rolling in, so I pulled out the plate and top layer of grape leaves, added another layer plus more brine, and replaced the leaves and plate to let it go on fermenting.

And now, it's five weeks later. About every third or fourth day, I use a stainless steel spoon to skim the thin layer of whitish scum off the top of the water. It stills smells yummy. Inside the crock, things are really interesting. The cucumbers have lost their shiny green color, and are starting to take on a more translucent look. At first glance, it looks like a white mold is forming on the top sides of everything.

But disturb the crock and it turns into a 20-pound snow globe. The white stuff swirls around, almost flaky in appearance - floating about, turning the brine milky, and then slowly settling again.

My research said fermentation takes about 4 weeks in a 70-degree environment - our average countertop temperature this time of year. When finished the pickles should have a uniformly translucent appearance, and a pleasantly sour taste. I cut one open, and there are just little bits of still-whitish flesh. It was sooooo good! I left it out on the cutting board this afternoon, and have already eaten half of it - one slice at a time.

A lot of the sources say the finished pickles will keep 4-6 months refrigerated, but should be heat-processed for longer storage. But they also say that if you maintain at least a couple inches of brine above the pickles, and skim the top scum off regularly, they'll keep fermenting, getting sourer and sourer. Fermentation slows down too, the lower the temperature. I don't want to cook the pickles (possibly lessening crunchiness), and don't have much refrigerator space, so my plan is to try keeping them in the crock through the winter. I pulled everything out of the crock, and cleaned and re-sterilized it. I filled a quart jar with a couple of the smaller pickles, to keep on the fast-track ferment here on the kitchen counter. I then re-packed the rest of the pickles back into the crock, mixing up a bit more of the brine to top it off.

We've been opening up the cellar nights now - the inside temperature is now down in the low 60's. I'm going to move the pickle crock down there, and keep a close eye on the scum situation (if left too long, mold then forms too - ruining the pickles and possibly poisoning me). But I'm thinking, the cellar temperature will continue to drop, fermentation will slow down, and I can safely eat yummy sour pickles all winter (or until they're all gone, anyway). Worst case scenario, they'll end up in the refrigerator by February.

**Edit added six months later: Now, towards the end of March, the pickles are still doing fine down in the cellar, where temps are still in the low 40'sF. They pickled all the way through, but since then I haven't noticed that they've gotten any sour-er.

Every week to 10 days an almost gel-like layer of scum forms on the top, occasionally with a couple specks of blue-topped white mold on top of that. It's easy enough to just pinch that layer, pull it out, and toss it.

The pickles are still submerged a couple of inches below the surface, beneath the heavy china plate. When I want another pickle, I'll fish one out, redistribute those left, and replace the plate. Inside the house, I have a quart jar of brine in the refrigerator, where I keep the current pickle, cutting slices off as needed. No scum forms on the jar in the refrigerator.

A lucky bonus came from using the grape leaves. I don't know if they made the pickles any crisper, but they pickled along with the cucumbers. I'll usually eat one or two standing right there in the cellar. I have some recipes for making dolmas, grape leaves stuffed with a rice filling, and might try that if I have any left when it's time to empty the crock to move what's left to the refrigerator as the cellar warms up. They're good enough that I think I'll add even more grape leaves to next year's batch.

Monday, September 27, 2010

A Sociable Weekend, Out and About

The weather was absolutely gorgeous this past weekend, and both of us got the chance to be out enjoying it. After Labor Day, when the kids head back to school, the number of tourists visiting Lake Tahoe naturally drops - at least until snow brings the skiers. However, right now really is the best time of year to be out and about - the heat of summer gives way to pleasantly warm days, while the nights have yet to get down below freezing. The area capitalizes on this by scheduling a plethora of outside events every weekend in September and into October - luring the tourists (and their money) back.

Earlier this month were the Reno Balloon Races, the Camel Races in Virginia City, the the Reno Air Races , and closer to home, our local Basque Festival.

Aries took a week's vacation this past week, just so he could finally check out this weekend's big event: Street Vibrations - "a celebration of music, metal and motorcycles." The highway is only two blocks from our house, and from Thursday afternoon through Sunday, the rumble of motorcycles was almost non-stop. For three days, Aries was out with his buddies - riding up to Virginia City, and then checking out the bikes, vendors, and shows in Reno and Sparks. I have a bike - an 800 cc 1989 Honda Pacific Coast, but haven't ridden it much lately. I let the boys have their fun without me.

But, not to worry, I was out and about having fun with the girls. My Soroptimist Club held our biggest annual fundraiser Saturday - the Stroke to Help (fight breast cancer) Golf Tournament. The money we raise pays for mammograms and biopsies for uninsured local women. On the day of the tournament, I volunteered to be an official observer on a par-3 hole where a hole-in-one would win a $10,000 prize.

I used to work at Eagle Valley Golf, where we hold the tournament. I know the hole-in-one hole I'd be working - it's one of the prettiest places on the West Course. I packed a thermos of coffee, a magazine, and my Ipod: prepared to spend the morning kicked-back in a golf cart, looking out across just about all of Carson City. I stitched together two photos (above, click on photo for a closer look) and still only show a partial slice of the view. No hole-in-one (it's a pretty tough hole - short distance, but there's a ravine between the tee and the green that shakes a lot of golfers' confidence).

Sunday, Aries and I were out and about together. He joined me to check out the Candy Dance Faire in Genoa. Originally called Mormon Station, a trading outpost built during the California Gold Rush days, Genoa is the oldest permanent settlement in Nevada (photo above is statue of Snowshoe Thompson, legendary skiing frontier mail carrier, outside the Mormon Station State Park in Genoa). In 1919, the town needed money to buy street lights, so they held a fund-raising dance with home-made candy for refreshments. Of course, once the street lights were bought and installed, they then had an electric bill that had to be paid each year. So the Candy Dance became an annual tradition.

Ninety years later, they still hold a dance on Saturday night, and they still make candy (hundreds of hours by devoted volunteers - making, packing, and selling over 4000 pounds of candy). But the biggest draw now is the Arts & Crafts Faire. They close off the streets in this tiny town of only a couple hundred people, and for two days hundreds of vendors attract thousands of people. We didn't buy anything, other than our lunch, but I love wandering about, people-watching and to see what other people have made - it's a great idea-starter for my own projects.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Drying and Storing Herbs

I can't believe how time slips away between posts here. I've been doing a lot of seasonal chores, and some kitchen experimenting, and I know a lot of it would be interesting to my readers. I find myself composing blog posts in my head, and then never seem to find the time to sit down and type. I have taken some photos too, so will try to use them to rebuild a bit of my activity of the past few weeks.

Between the rigors of late Spring freezes meaning a slow start to the garden season, a summer on the cool side, and Bambi's predation, my harvest is going to be somewhat meager. I haven't been doing very much canning this year. The nights are still hanging in there above freezing, with the lowest of the lows in the high 30's, so I'm still hoping for a bit more from the tomatoes, squashes, and peppers. Right now, I'm harvesting herbs.

Perennial herbs are great. I love that they're, for the most part, low maintenance and drought tolerant. Once I find the just the right spot for each one, they pretty much take care of themselves. Throughout the summer, I snip bits here and there for fresh use. But now it's time to clean things up for the winter, cutting the plants back and hanging labeled bunches to dry.

I use rubber bands on the bunches (tying with string not so good - the stems shrink as they dry and will slip out of string) and then use old drapery hooks for hangers. The pointy part slips beneath the rubber band, the hook part fits over the edge of a high shelf. Once dry, I crumble the leaves from the big stems into a large colander set atop a piece of newspaper. Then a combination of shaking and more crumbling separates out the smaller stems and leaves me with reasonably uniformly shaped bits of dried herbs to last me through the winter and spring. My tea herbs are stored in clear glass jars I've lined with paper to protect them from the light; brown glass bouillon powder jars are reused to hold the cooking herbs.